When Bollywood blockbuster ‘Airlift‘ released in late January this year, it brought back bittersweet memories of the Gulf War. My family and I were in Kuwait during the summer of 1990, and through the innocent eyes of adolescence, I can still vividly remember all that unfolded.
Airlift is an action-packed Bollywood movie that is based on the real-life bravery of an Indian businessman. Mathunny Mathews is credited for being one of the people responsible for fixing a deal with the Indian government and safely airlifting over 170,000 Indians back to India from Iraq-invaded Kuwait. Till this movie came out, I had never heard of Mr. Mathews, and if he ever reads this, I would like to say we are eternally grateful to him as my family and I were one of the many families who’s lives he managed to save.
However, our story in Iraq-invaded Kuwait was rather different from what was portrayed in the movie, and given today is August 2nd, the 26th anniversary of the Iraqi invasion, I wanted to share some of my personal memoirs from the Gulf War with you.
My father was always a very early riser, and in the weekends when I was a little girl, he would sneak out of the house before dawn and go for a leisurely stroll at the beach.
Many a time I’d wake up, hearing him shuffle the keys into the lock, and would have the pleasure of accompanying him. These were very precious father-daughter mornings. We would tiptoe into the darkness (least we awaken the rest of the household), and drive up to the neighboring beach.
The beach was almost deserted at this hour, and the air was crisp and fresh despite the summer heat. I would always be in absolute awe of the sunrise. The drama of mellowed light eroded the night’s darkness, and the spill of sheer sunshine played havoc on the restless blue waves. It is truly magical watching brightness taking over to announce the beginning of a brand new day.
After our casual walk through the sandy beaches, Papa would treat me to steaming-hot parathas from a local stall. With eyes twinkling with the magic of dawn, and a tummy satiated with greasy goodness I used to get home and brag about our morning expeditions to my baby sister.
She would beg to be taken along too, and Papa finally gave in. So it was planned. The following weekend, the entire family will rise and go to the beach to witness the sunrise. We would make a picnic of it, and spend a leisurely morning. My sister and I would collect seashells, and build fascinating sand-castles by the waves. My newborn brother would be bundled up in his pram, and taken for a stroll by my parents. It all sounded fabulous!
It was the summer holidays, and most of our friends were off on their annual break. The days seemed long and idle, and I eagerly counted down to the planned picnic.
However, the evening before the day of the picnic, Papa came home with a huge pirate-like band over one eye. My father worked as a Petroleum Engineer, and was visiting an oil field. An unexpected sandstorm hit him unawares, and left one eye infected.
How was he to drive, handicapped with one eye? The picnic was cancelled. Our little hearts were shattered. We had been looking forward to this picnic all week.
However, destiny had much more in store for us. That very dawn when we were planning to be on the beach fell on August 2nd, 1990. Iraqi forces took peacefully sleeping, unawares Kuwait by surprise. Many of their troops came via sea, and randomly shot down anyone who happened to be on the beach that morning. We too would have been on that beach had it not been for my father’s sore eye.
Can you image this? One moment we were living the high life, a spoilt existence in the air-conditioned cocoon of Kuwait. Overnight, our lives turned upside-down, and we were living in the midst of a war zone.
As a child, my fears were well shielded with innocence. My little friends and I were more than happy our summer holidays were suddenly prolonged. It reminds me of one of my all-time favorite movies, ‘Life is Beautiful‘, where the main protagonist, a Jewish-Italian father imprisoned with his family in a Nazi Concentration Camp, uses his vivid imagination to shield his young son from the vile reality before him.
When I look back, it never fails to amaze me on what my parents must have gone through. With three young children under their care, they shielded every little form of anxiety from us perfectly well.
Base camps were being formed where big crowds of people were living together for protection, but my father refused to leave home. With undying faith in the Almighty, he placed special verses of the Quran in every corner of the house, and told us we were safer here than anywhere else. We resumed to living life like we knew it to be.
Food was being bought at extravagant prices, and milk was a rare and precious commodity. However, we had a whole carton of Horlicks. My mother would mix this with warm water, and tell us it was ‘Children’s Tea’. She served it to us in dainty fine china cups, and we had to have it pinkies up. It had a horrid thickness and smelt like hay. Till this day, I detest Horlicks.
Stupid Saddam Hussein
A Kuwaiti family lived next door to us. I never really got along with the family’s young sons, but somehow things were different now. The Iraqis were the bad guys, and we were brought together, united over board games, Atari (remember these?!) and other simple forms of indoor entertainment.
One morning, Aunty Halima came in to say she was baking some Banana Cake, and will be sending us some in the evening. Sure enough, our doorbell rang around 5 pm. However, the ringing was very frantic and resonated through the house, abruptly waking us up from a peaceful siesta.
There was no cake… but there was even worse news. Aunty Halima’s husband had been arrested by the Iraqis! His crime? He was stopped at a checkpoint, and happened to have a Kuwaiti flag in his boot. They also took a liking for his new-model Mercedes, but he had refused to hand it over.
Brave and compassionate, my father decided to visit the ‘police station’ with Aunty Halima. My mother accompanied them along with my baby brother, who was just learning to talk. My sister and I stayed with the boys, praying everything would go alright.
The police station was nothing like its former self. It had turned into a torture chamber of sorts, and was plastered with life-sized posters of Saddam Hussein.
Once at the station, Aunty Halima cried, begged and pleaded for her husband. My father worked on his broken Arabic and told them they could keep the car, but free his friend.
Through all this, my mother sat at a corner cradling my baby brother. We are not quite sure when he picked this up, but out of the blue he pointed at a life-sized poster and exclaimed rather boldly ‘Stupid Saddam Hussein!’. My mother quickly palmed his mouth. Thankfully the soldiers did not grasp what he had said, and they all walked out alive and free with our car-less but very relieved neighbor.
For the Love of Kichri
One afternoon, my mother whipped up a delicious lunch of Kichri and chicken curry. We were just digging into the meal when Aunty Halima rang the door-bell again, this time to warn us that the sirens had gone off and our building might be the next bombing target.
My father was totally unperturbed. He told her not to worry as he was confident even the Iraqis would not bomb our community as we had a beautiful, large old mosque near our premises. He was adamant we finish our kichri, and that is exactly what we did while the rest of the neighborhood fled outdoors.
Alhamdulilah nothing happened. We were safe, our neighborhood was unaffected. Best of all, even when we came back to our apartment almost two years later after fleeing beloved Kuwait, our home and our belongings were perfectly intact, just as we had left them. My father had a strong sense of judgement.
Bus Number 15
My father had no intentions of leaving Kuwait. He was confident that things would return to normal soon enough. However, when an Iraqi official started doing home visits forcing us to change our residency status to Iraqi, he told us the time had come to pack our bags.
As you might have seen in Airlift, a whole convoy of buses were being organised for Indians to flee Kuwait. The buses took passengers through the deserted dessert roads to Baghdad, and finally to Jordan where charter flights were organized all the way to Bombay.
The tickets did not come cheap, and had to be bought off the black market. The prices varied as per the whims and fancies of the vendors. They knew all too well how to play with the sentiments of the desperate.
My father bought tickets around early November. He clearly remembers these were for Bus No. 15. These vehicles were once used as school buses, but the current situation had elevated them to a heroic status.
The night before our departure, my baby brother fell violently ill. He couldn’t keep in anything he was fed, and was spewing it all out. Seeing his situation, my father decided to cancel our travel. What would he do with an ill child on unknown roads?
This too turned out to be a blessing in disguise, as a few weeks later, when my father went to buy our bus tickets for a second time, he got to know that Bus No. 15 had mysteriously disappeared. Perhaps it had been looted mid-route, perhaps the driver lost his way. No one knows. All we know is we missed that fateful bus.
We finally left Kuwait in late November, just a couple of months before the Americans came in and ‘Operation Desert Storm’ took over in full-force. We took a bus through Baghdad, and even spent a night in a makeshift camp in Jordan before catching a flight to Bombay (yes, it was still called ‘Bombay’ back then).
Although we were now safe from Iraqi aggression, we also felt like fish out of water in India. Our extended family were delighted to see us alive and well, yet we didn’t have a permanent home here, and missed the laid-back lifestyle of Kuwait.
Even as children, we despised Saddam Hussain. For us, he was the man responsible for turning our lives topsy turvy. Yet it was rather amusing to see that the hot-headed tyrant had a fan-following among the lesser educated in India. We spotted auto-rickshaws named after him, and even met a store-keeper who had named his son Saddam.
We returned to Kuwait in late 1991, and it was one of the happiest times of our lives. We reunited with old friends, recollected war stories, and were absolutely amazed and relieved at getting all our possessions back just as we had left them.
My family and I migrated to New Zealand not long after, but Kuwait remains a dear old friend. Looking back, I am rather proud of being a part of history and owe it all to my wonderful parents.
My Father My Hero
This Friday will be 6 months since my beloved Papa left us forever. I miss him every hour, every day, and especially so at such milestones. He never got to watch Airlift, and I am sure he would have had quite a few comments to add on how it really was. All I know is he was my real hero, a man of unwavering love and faith who I am extremely proud of calling my Papa. Thank-you for the love, the heart-wrenchingly beautiful memories, and for teaching me to always look at the brighter side of life. Papa, you will forever be my hero.